When average musicians think about music recording and production, they think of two approaches: the professional approach and the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach.
The professional approach involves going into a well-equipped recording studio with an experienced, professional engineer for tracking, overdubbing, editing and mixing, then shipping off your mixes to an experienced, professional mastering studio for mastering. The DIY approach is where the artist does everything themselves using consumer-level hardware and software.
The DIY approach is usually chosen to save money. The results are often - but not necessarily always - less impressive with the DIY approach.
Today, I'm here to tell you that a hybrid approach is a valid third approach. It allows you to save money while not sacrificing too much quality.
The key to getting the right balance of the DIY and professional approaches is to honestly evaluate what skills and resources are needed and what you have available to you, then choosing what you do yourself and what you leave to the professionals. Let's break down "music production" into a few of its phases and talk about the skills and resources needed for each phase.
Tracking & Overdubbing
Tracking and overdubbing are phases that require the least technical skill. And except for recording drums, they are phases that require fewer technical resources. For everything except drums, you will need the following skills and resources:
For recording drums, you will need microphones for each drum as well as overheads. Generally, you can get away with basic instrument microphones and stands/clips for each drum except the kick drum, which will require a kick drum-specific microphone. Overhead microphones are usually condenser microphones designed for that particular purpose. And, you need a room acoustically appropriate for drum recording. Some people choose to take a different approach with drums, either programming them using a software program or tracking them as MIDI.
Some artists do all of their tracking and overdubbing themselves. Others do none of the tracking and overdubbing themselves. And it's not uncommon for artists to record their drums in a professional studio and do the balance of tracking and overdubbing in a DIY fashion.
Some aspects of editing, like making timing corrections, can be done within the bones of the DAW. Others, like vocal tuning, require third-party plug-ins. And, if you want a recording that is competitive with what comes out of pro studios - some may, some may not - you will need to do vocal tuning. So, in addition to what you needed for Tracking & Overdubbing, you will also need:
If you are taking a hybrid approach to music production, you can choose to editing yourself or send your recording to a professional for editing. I will say this...if the vocals require a little more TLC than just a nudge of a note here or there, having vocal editing done by an experienced professional will result in the vocals sounding a lot more natural.
Mixing is where specialized skill and experience really separates professionalism from amateurism. Someone's first mix ever will not sound anywhere close to a mix done by an experienced professional. That's because a common misconception is that mixing is just balancing the volume of instruments and voices. It's much more than that. While mixing can be done within a DAW using built-in capabilities, here are the additional skills needed for a good mix:
If you've never mixed a recording before and want to publicly release a recording that is taken seriously yet still allows you to take advantage of the cost savings that a DIY approach offers, mixing is a smart place to start getting professionals involved.
Even when a record label-caliber recording is done in a professional recording studio, it is usually sent to an independent mastering specialist for mastering services. The prevailing logic is two-fold: someone who specializes in mastering will be much better at it than someone who does recording but dabbles in mastering, and having a separate mastering specialist means that you will have two music industry professionals putting their talent to work to make your recording sound its absolute best.
So, naturally, even if you've done tracking, overdubbing, editing and mixing yourself, it's to your benefit to have a professional do your mastering. In fact, I'd say that if you only have one process performed by someone else, it should be mastering. It's the last chance you have to make a sonic improvement to your music before it goes to streaming or physical product manufacturing. And, it's usually less expensive than vocal editing or mixing. You'll give yourself the opportunity to at least have one music industry professional contribute to the quality of your recording.
If you want to do mastering yourself, you should know that DAW's are generally not designed to do mastering. There are some people who try to do mastering within a DAW with its built-in plug-ins. But, that's not really true mastering. Here are the additional skills and resources you need to do mastering:
Obviously, if money were no object, every musical artist would have the best producers, recording engineers, mixing engineers and mastering engineers work on their recordings. But, money is an object. So, some situations require a DIY approach to enable artists to get their music out there on a limited budget. Therefore, it's good to think through what you can accomplish yourself and, if you do have some budget available, where you might be able to afford a music industry professional to enhance your work.
Before and After Music Group is a company that specializes in mastering. If you would like to have at least one outside company take your DIY project to the next level, we'd love to hear from you and discuss what we can do for your music. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-600-8241!
Chip Dominick is the CEO and head mastering engineer for Before and After Music Group